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A Funded Study Tour in India to Learn About Dharmic Traditions

Let’s learn about the Uberoi grant for educator travel to India!

Teaching Traveling: Welcome, Kate Ehrlich — thank you for being willing to talk about the funded teacher study program you did in India. Tell us a bit about yourself!

Golden Temple, Amritsar, India
This photo was taken in Amritsar, India. Behind me, you can see the Golden Temple and the line of visitors waiting to enter the sacred space.

Kate: I was born and raised in Maryland and have always enjoyed traveling. Growing up, during the summers, my family would often take road and day trips from our house in Mt. Airy. I remember one tour of New England when, in addition to all the conventional sites, we were able to see a house made entirely of paper and a life-size chocolate moose. My sister and I were thrilled! 

A lot of trips were related to learning about history, like the Freedom Trail in Boston or a visit to Colonial Williamsburg. I also benefited from living close to the wonderful Smithsonian Institutions in D.C. All of these experiences helped develop my love of history.

Ganges River as it flows through Varanasi, India
View of the Ganges River as it flows through Varanasi, India. Late rains meant that its waters were very low. Boats were gathered on the shore to watch the sunset aarti performed each evening by Hindu priests on the ghats.

I graduated from Towson University in May 2006 with a degree in History/Social Studies and Secondary Education. I began teaching that fall.  While working, I completed a master’s degree in the Humanities from Hood College. My capstone project focused on the racist and nativist arguments used by women’s rights advocates in order to secure women’s right to vote. I earned my National Board Certification in 2011 and successfully completed the renewal process in 2020.

I am about to begin my 17th year teaching History and Social Studies for Frederick County Public Schools (MD). Currently, my schedule includes AP Psychology, AP Macroeconomics, Modern World History, and World Religions. 

World Religions is an elective course open to all juniors and seniors. Because it is not a commonly taught course, it can be hard to find quality professional development on the concepts covered. I was motivated to participate in the programs offered by the Uberoi Foundation for Religious Studies to improve my understanding of the four dharmic traditions.

Uberoi Teacher Training - India
This is a photo of the 2022 Uberoi Teacher Training – India participants. We were visiting the house of Anu Bhatia, the niece of the Uberoi Foundation’s benefactor. We were all gifted scarves upon our arrival. Also included are some professors and tour leaders involved in the program.

TT: Wonderful! Tell us more about your funded summer travels to India.

Kate: This summer, I was lucky enough to attend both the Transatlantic Outreach Program’s study tour of Germany and the Uberoi Teaching Training in India (UTTI). The India trip included 3.5 weeks of travel in July. Participants were responsible for purchasing their own flights to and from India, and all other travel costs were covered by the Uberoi Foundation. 

Upon arrival, we spent a few days in Delhi, and then, we visited four cities: Amritsar, Sarnath, Varanasi, and Pune. During our stay in each city, we focused on one of the dharmic traditions and engaged in experiential learning. We also heard lectures from prominent scholars who each expanded our understanding of the four traditions.

Hindu temple at Banaras Hindu University
At the Hindu temple at Banaras Hindu University (BHU), visitors whisper secret wishes into the bull Nandi’s ear. Nandi is the vehicle of the god Shiva, and it is believed Nandi shares these wishes with Shiva, who then grants them.

TT: The Uberoi Foundation trip sounds remarkable! How did you find out about it?

Kate: I have found some of my travel opportunities via social media. The Facebook group “Scholarships, Grants, and Summer Institutes for Teachers” has been particularly helpful. I learned about the Uberoi Foundation on that page, and I enjoy seeing the wide variety of programs in which American teachers are engaging. 

I also talk to my fellow travelers when on study tours and often hear of new opportunities. For example, while on a Fulbright study tour of China, two of the participants told me about the Transatlantic Outreach Program and encouraged me to apply.  One of those people went on to write my recommendation letter for the application.

Stupa, Deer Park in Sarnath, India
This stupa marks the stop of the Buddha’s first teaching after his enlightenment. It is located in the Deer Park in Sarnath, India. The Deer Park also features the ruins of a temple built where the Buddha spent his summer in Sarnath and remnants of a column Emperor Ashoka, who helped spread Buddhist teachings, erected. The nearby Sarnath Museum was full of interesting archaeological finds.

The Uberoi Teacher Training – US is a one-week program that takes place each summer.  About 60 participants from around the country meet virtually to learn more about Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Jainism. 

There are also options to attend local site visits related to the topics discussed. I completed this program in July 2020 when it was modified due to the events of that year. However, the program still gave me a lot of new information I could use in my classes. 

Upon completion of the program, I was asked to submit a lesson plan. My lesson focused on darshan and its role in Hindu worship. The program was completely free. After participating in the US workshop, I was eligible to apply for the program in India. When I received word in late winter that the trip was happening this summer, I immediately decided to apply.

site of Gandhi’s assassination in Delhi, India
We visited the site of Gandhi’s assassination in Delhi, India. The footsteps on the ground mark the path he took into the gardens of Birla House. Throughout the trip, we learned how Gandhi embraced Jain teachings during his campaign for Indian independence, including Bramacharya, Ahimsa, and Satya.

TT: Brilliant. How did you find the money for your India study tour, beyond what was funded by the grant?

Kate: I have found that many educator travel programs are free (or mostly free). The total cost for my India flights was about $1,500.00. To find the best flight for me, I used Google Flights and set up an alert, so I would know when the price of the tickets was at its lowest. I also bought my India tickets in late March, before summer demand caused prices to increase. 

The only other money I put towards the trip was a little spending money for souvenirs. One way I save money on trips, in general, is by being very selective with what I buy.  Instead of accumulating many things, I view my photos and memories as my souvenirs.  

Classical Indian dance, dancers in Varanasi, India
During a presentation on classical Indian dance, dancers in Varanasi, India modeled for us the different hand, face, and eye movements associated with the artform.

Because I am National Board Certified, my state and district offer me an annual stipend.  For many years, that stipend was $3,000, and I always thought of it as travel money and savings. 

Now, the state of Maryland is mandating a stipend of $10,000 for all National Board Certified teachers with an additional $7.000 for those working in Title I schools. I would recommend all teachers investigate the stipends available in their districts to see if it could help offset the costs of travel.

The Golden Temple in Amritsar, India at sunset
The Golden Temple in Amritsar, India at sunset. This is the holiest gurdwara in Sikhism and a site of pilgrimage for Sikhs.

TT: Excellent. Now, tell us one moment from your India teacher travels that was particularly powerful, interesting, or funny.

Kate: In the city of Amritsar, we took a tour of the Golden Temple, which is one of the holiest places for Sikhs. Not only was the temple itself beyond beautiful, but we saw firsthand how Sikhs practice their faith. 

Sikhs believe strongly in service to others and the equality of all persons.  These beliefs are exemplified by langar, a free meal provided to anyone in need. Adjacent to the temple, is the area in which langar is prepared, served, and cleaned up. 

Guests participate in Langar at the Golden Temple.
Guests participate in Langar at the Golden Temple. All diners sit on the floor and together, which reflects the Sikh belief in the equality of all persons. Volunteers walk up and down the rows serving food. The space is open 24 hours a day and serves approximately 80,000 free meals each weekday.

Upon entering, all guests were handed a food tray and small bowl. In the large dining hall, guests ate on the floor, in rows, and without any distinction between persons. Volunteers walked along the rows serving food and water. 

We were told that about 80,000 meals are provided to visitors each weekday—with closer to 100,000 served on weekend days. When we finished eating, we walked downstairs to see two large rooms. In one, vegetables were being chopped and in the other dishes were being washed. 

Hundreds of volunteers were busy at work. My fellow travelers and I were able to jump in and help with the cleaning. I stood in a line, shoulder to shoulder, with local, female volunteers washing bowls while men carted containers of dirty dishes back and forth into the room. This experience was a powerful reminder of the Sikh community’s commitment to helping others.

Volunteers cleaning dishes from langar at the Golden Temple.
Volunteers cleaning dishes from langar at the Golden Temple.

TT: So beautiful. How have your travels impacted you as a teacher, and as a person?

Kate: Like most teachers, I work with students who come from a variety of cultural, religious, racial, and ethnic backgrounds. One of my goals is to become more responsive to students’ unique needs, so they can achieve success in my classroom. Just the act of going abroad and experiencing a different culture can help teachers build empathy for those students who are new to the United States. For example, when I’m in a country where I am unable to speak the language, I think about my students who are learning English as a second language and what that experience must feel like for them.  

Seeing and learning about the places I discuss in class also broadens my understanding of the curriculum. It’s one thing to teach about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar in 1919, but another to actually see the brick wall riddled with bullet holes where peaceful protesters were shot or the large wells in which men, women, and children jumped to escape the British attack. 

In India, the Uberoi Foundation did a great job of finding knowledgeable professors who deepened our understanding of each of the four dharmic traditions. Whether it was a discussion of how Gandhi’s vow of brahmacharya shaped his leadership or private efforts to reduce the pollution of the Ganges River, the tour gave me a lot to think about. 

Pakistani-Indian border crossing near Amritsar
Each night, at the Pakistani-Indian border crossing near Amritsar, both sides present a coordinated program. I’ve described it to folks at home as a cross between a high school pep rally and the 4th of July. This picture shows both sides lowering their flags, in sync with one another. Those individuals shown in the stands are on the Pakistani side. The Indian side fired up its crowd with music and dancing before the ceremony.

TT: Well said. What advice do you have for teachers who are dreaming of travel?

Kate: If you are a teacher who wants to engage in funded travel, there are an endless number of domestic and international trips available to you. When deciding where to apply, I would objectively consider your own level of experience, strengths, and weaknesses. 

Inside a Jain temple in Pune, India
Inside a Jain temple in Pune, India, we saw several Tirthankaras. This is one of the twenty-four Tirthankara, spiritual teachers, that exist in Jainism. All Tirthankara are depicted in the same way, and they can be identified by the red writing underneath. We learned that in Svetambara temples, Tirthankara are depicted with decoration (as shown). In Digambara temples, the idols are plain.

You need to think about whether or not you can travel light.  What types of weather conditions or temperatures do you want to experience? Are you physically able to keep up with other travelers? Can you get along with others? Are you able to be flexible and adjust to change? 

Can you be a good representative of American teachers abroad? Are you willing to follow health protocols? Quality, honest reflection about your needs and wants is the best way to make sure you select the program that is right for you.

TT: Thanks so much, Kate! Readers, what questions or comments do you have about this remarkable funded India study tour?


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